Understand Your Horse's Language

Horse training is less whispering and more listening, insists Stacy Westfall, who in this article explains the things horse owners and horse trainers need to be listening for in order to better communicate with their horses.

In the last several years, a young horsewoman named Stacy Westfall of Mount Gilead, Ohio, has captivated the horse world’s attention. Stacy has won numerous “freestyle” classes at National Reining Horse Association events by guiding her horse bridleless through an intricate series of maneuvers set to music without even a neck strap. Earlier this year, Stacy also won the Road to the Horse Colt-Starting Challenge, an event in which four contestants have three hours to gentle and train an untouched youngster and ride it through an obstacle course-with 5,000 spectators watching.

Westfall is boggled by the pseudo title of “horse whisperer,” which she acquired after besting well-known clinicians Martin Black, Van Hargis and Craig Cameron at this year’s Road to the Horse.

“People think I’m a whisperer, but it’s not whispering-it’s listening,” she insists. That’s the basic philosophy that she and her husband, Jesse, share with those who come to ride with them.

“Listen to your horse. Understand his language. Speak his language. Once you do that, the rest comes easy,” Stacy explains.

While the philosophy is pretty straightforward, Westfall admits that the actual process requires dedicated observation. You have to learn to understand horses and how they communicate, and then approach them appropriately. To her, there’s no mystery involved.

“By watching, you can learn how to read a horse’s body-then you get a sense of it,” she explains. “You not only see the environment and its effects through physical subtleties, but you can feel it. It’s like when you can tell what your spouse is thinking.”

Stacy describes the horse’s demeanor and emotions at any given time as his “state-of-being.” Once identified, Stacy can make logical decisions about how to handle problems and foster communication. From tiny nostril flares to a belligerent buck, Westfall’s own deductive reasoning allows her to tune in and figure out what’s really going on with the horse in any given situation.

Step by Step
Westfall approaches every new or young horse and each situation in the same way. She evaluates the horse’s history (if it’s available), the immediate surroundings, his reaction to that environment, and his state-of-being. She may ask herself questions such as: Are there crowds rustling across bleachers? Are horses running in a nearby turnout? How is that horse carrying his body? Is he tense or relaxed? Are his ears up? Are his eyes big? The answers to these questions help her know where to begin.

The first step of the process is establishing trust. The methods and techniques Stacy used to win the Road to the Horse competition illustrate how she quickly created trust with the horse she drew. It also exemplifies one of Westfall’s basic rules in horse training: the importance of acquiring and maintaining control of a situation.

The horse Westfall drew for the competition came from a ranch in Alabama, where he was basically untouched for the first three years of his life. The only time he had had human contact was when he was run into stocks to receive vet or farrier care. When she saw the colt, Stacy immediately nicknamed him Popcorn.

Right before the first session began, Westfall says the judges relaxed the rules, allowing the contestants to use a saddle horse if they wanted. But using a helping horse had never been a part of Westfall’s colt-starting program at home, so she wisely chose to stick with what has always worked for her.

“I knew that I was not going to rope Popcorn-I’ve never had to rope a horse. I was going to do what I normally do,” even if that meant she was still trying to catch him at the end of the one-hour timeframe, which was almost the case.

When Westfall walked into the round pen for the first time, she empathized with the horse, and pragmatically began evaluating all the variables that would affect him. She remembered thinking about how Popcorn felt. “Suddenly he’s in a round pen, separated from his buddies, in front of a crowd of people, and he’s really stressed.”

Westfall knew that she would use Popcorn’s stress to her advantage, but not at his expense.

“He was drawn to the side of the round pen where the other horses were in bordering round pens,” she says. “I stepped back and assessed his stress and saw how the other clinicians, horses and the crowds were affecting him.

“I started moving him around the pen in a dominant way. I built on that dominance by moving him around and reading the situation for him and myself. Then I got him to hunt for relief. I backed off and he’d look at me. Then he’d get distracted by the crowd, or startled, and we’d start all over again.”

Westfall says she had to focus on her horse and her goals, rather than get caught up or discouraged by what was going on around her. She remembers the crowd going wild when Martin Black roped and haltered his horse within the first five or 10 minutes. “I think it took me 40 minutes just to get him caught.”

The important thing is, Westfall stuck to her plan. By moving Popcorn around the pen, she was behaving as horses do in herds. A dominant horse will herd other horses, so Stacy was establishing herself as the leader in a way Popcorn understood.

Westfall continued applying pressure until she could see Popcorn start to slow down and begin to watch her. Under stressful conditions, horses will move away as if they are “getting away,” or they will search for safety with others, Westfall explains. This is how stress can be used as a training device. When Popcorn acted like he wanted to stop moving and stand still for a minute, Westfall gave him a break.

That was the first step toward establishing trust. It was as if Stacy said to the colt, “When you are really stressed and looking for relief, I will give you relief.” When Popcorn stopped and looked at her, Westfall knew she had his attention and was gaining control.

Westfall’s interactions with her Road to the Horse partner show how horses communicate and how their state-of-being can change. Within 40 minutes, Popcorn went from being scared and running away to being submissive and looking for relief from Westfall. Even in an environment with a lot of noise and distractions, Stacy was able to convince Popcorn that she was a point of comfort, enough so that he would allow her to put a halter on him.

“I know the value of mentally getting a horse wanting to be with you,” she explains. She felt satisfied with her progress at the end of that session and was prepared to build on that during the second day of the competition-even though several of her peers may have actually done more with their horses during that first hour.

“On the second day, when I finally got to him and touched him, I turned away and he followed me,” Stacy recalls. “Then he was locked on to me and he trusted me. I had to pressure him to be away from me-I had become his safety net.”

That, she points out, is the powerful effect that using pressure and relief can have in the training process. “Too many people avoid stress,” notes Westfall. However, when used correctly, appropriately and to your advantage, stress and stress-relief are the cornerstones to successfully handling horses.

Cued for Success
Once trust is established, the real learning can begin. “Horses need to conquer little steps solidly,” says Westfall, pointing out that people often rush through the training process. “You need to conquer little steps and be able to control that horse on the ground at home, or when a flag flaps around.”

Using consistent cues is key to helping horses learn a solid lesson. Consistent signals will develop trust and expectations for both horse and rider, allowing the horse to effectively and efficiently master the lesson at hand. Once a horse knows basic cues while working in hand, such as move away from pressure, cluck means walk, and whoa means stop, then you can move on.

“Your horse knows what you’re going to ask through a history of consistency,” Westfall explains. She makes sure her horses are solid in one maneuver before moving on to another, no matter how green or how well trained the horse is.

Westfall’s basic cue system is straightforward. Using physical and mental pressure to elicit a response, she tries to provide a clear indication of what she wants to the horse. Leg pressure or rein pressure means to give to it or move away. She describes how she uses her legs as “leg waving.”

“I teach my horses to follow the rhythm I set with my legs-rhythmically waving them to increase or decrease speed,” Stacy says. Leaning her body forward means move forward, i.e., legs and seat are still while the upper body and rein hand move slightly forward over the neck. Putting her weight (pressure) in her seat and feet means slow down a little-or a lot-depending on intensity. Putting her weight in her seat and feet and moving her pelvis back slightly means stop.

While Westfall does use some verbal cues, she admits she doesn’t talk much to her horses except for clucking, kissing and using the word “whoa.”

“If it’s just me and my horse, it’s really quiet,” she says. “You need to have cues that establish communication and control. Maybe it’s doing an inside turn to retain their attention-to constantly get them to look to you as the leader.” These cues, alone or in combination, are the basic communication between Westfall and her horse.

He’s Got It

In determining if a horse has mastered a maneuver, Westfall considers several things. Physical responses are easy: Was the maneuver done correctly? Did the lead change happen? Was it performed willingly-no bucking or bolting? Was it performed gracefully? Did the horse feel smooth and relaxed?

Then Westfall falls back on her sense of the horse’s state-of-being. Was the horse frustrated, scared or irritated during the maneuver? Did he seem to have a positive attitude or a negative one? Did the horse feel tense or relaxed? Did he wait on the cue or anticipate? Being able to recognize subtle differences comes from experience. It helps to ride many horses, notes Stacy.

Trust Your Intuition
• Make establishing trust your first priority.

• Learn about your horse’s background or history so you can understand his perspective better. Use it to determine a good starting point.

• As you begin working with your horse, evaluate your surroundings so you can anticipate the horse’s reactions to different variables.

• Take advantage of (rather than avoid) stress and learn to use it constructively.

• Watch for clues and changes in your horse and try to interpret their meaning so you can adjust your methods to suit his “state-of-being.”

Reading the horse’s feedback correctly is vital. Stacy insists that a horse refusing to do something because of fear should be handled much differently than a horse refusing because he’s belligerent. You must be able to tell the difference.

With Popcorn, Westfall knew he was scared and highly stressed when she walked into his round pen. He was in strange surroundings, separated from his herd-mates, with lots of people and commotion going on all around him. She treated him accordingly.

But how would she have treated an older horse who was just playing games? Say a horse is throwing his head while being ridden. He’s been taught to give his face and knows the lesson well and there’s no physical reason for this behavior (i.e., his teeth are okay, the bridle fits correctly, etc.).

“The first thing I do is check the bit,” Westfall says, “maybe go back to a snaffle from a shank bit and pull (bend) the horse’s face around to the left and right. If he does that, then I try to imagine my hands feeling elastic, like a bungee cord. I wouldn’t be riding on a loose rein-maybe more contact like dressage, constant, steady pressure. Bumping the bit will often make head-throwing worse.

“I hold his face and push or even bump him into the bridle with my legs. I have my hands constant, so if the horse comes back off the bit, he’ll feel a release. If he throws his face out, he’ll get more pressure on his mouth. They need to trust your hands.”

Another common situation is a horse who gets stuck on a maneuver. He’s not scared or belligerent; he’s just confused. Westfall offered a solution to a common situation: a horse that gets confused during lead departures.

First, the horse learns that leg pressure means go forward. Then Westfall teaches him that leg pressure doesn’t always mean just go forward, sometimes it means go sideways. She needs both the forward motion and the slight sideways motion of the hip to get the correct lead, which can be confusing.

“For a while, the legs mean go forward, then you add that legs also mean sideways,” Stacy says. “Dull or lazy horses will want to only go sideways (with their hip) and not go forward anymore, so I use a verbal cue-I kiss for a lope. If that doesn’t work, then I use whatever is necessary… it may be a kick or slap with reins… to encourage forward motion.

“It’s important to understand where the horse’s confusion is coming from and then help him through it. There are many pieces to make up a maneuver. You have to go back through the parts of the maneuver and find the missing pieces. Whenever you’re in a bind, you must assess why that is. You have to go back and find that balance.”

But sometimes it’s not just confusion by the horse. “If something pops up and I can’t figure out where it came from,” Stacy adds, “then I suspect a physical problem.”

Whether you want to call it “horse listening” or not, one thing is for sure: Stacy Westfall knows horses. Her philosophy, techniques and experience support the great results she achieves in and out of the show pen. Trust, communication, deductive reasoning and consistency are words she lives by. And she’s just getting started.

Stacy’s Brideless Basics
• Being able to guide a horse bridleless begins with teaching him to be highly responsive to your cues while he is still wearing a bridle.

• Working with a trustworthy, well-broke horse, it’s always best to begin reinless training in a small, enclosed area, such as a round pen.

• Start with the bridle on and the reins tied around the saddle horn so you’re not tempted to “cheat.” That way they’re there if you need them. Continue to use your hands as though you are actually guiding with the reins.

• Concentrate on how other parts of your body, such as legs, weight, seat position and voice, influence your horse’s direction and speed.

• Be patient and consistent. You can use gentle, rhythmic leg-waving on one side and the other to ask for changes in direction. Both legs used together will help you set or change speeds.

• Kissing, clucking and verbal cues such as “whoa” are great for changes in gait and starting and stopping forward motion.

• Releasing your legs completely is another way to ask your horse to stop.

Stacy provides more tips on bridleless riding in her DVD “How Does She Do That?” For more information, log onto www.westfallhorsemanship.com.

Stacy Westfall Discovers Her Calling
It’s hard to believe that there was a time when Stacy Westfall didn’t consider training horses a real career option. “I thought I’d be an accountant,” she remembers with a broad smile. Growing up in a small town in Maine, she didn’t realize the existence of a huge horse industry within the United States, and she had never seen a reining horse.

“It’s just mind-boggling if I stop and think about it,” says this National Reining Horse Association multiple freestyle champion and the 2006 winner of the Road to the Horse colt-starting competition.

Westfall was a little girl when she began thinking like a horse. She remembers, “My mom taught me to think about what my horse feels and how he thinks.” In high school, a teacher introduced Westfall to the idea that she could actually live her dream of riding horses for a living.

Westfall spent four years at The University of Findlay and graduated with a degree in equine management. Under the instruction of horsemen like Dan Huss and Clark Bradley, she developed a comprehensive understanding of horses and learned deductive reasoning processes to formulate her own training technique.

“I had experience with lots of different horses and spent time watching what worked and what didn’t,” she says. “I learned different techniques to make whatever I wanted to happen the horse’s idea.”

Stacy and her husband Jesse specialize in training and showing reining horses. Stacy also takes her training techniques on the road, giving clinics in the U.S. and Canada. The couple have three children, whom they are raising and home-schooling on their farm in Mount Gilead, Ohio.

What did you think of this article?

Thank you for your feedback!